For the first time in 25 years, the number of African Americans incarcerated in state prisons for drug offenses has declined substantially, according to a study released by The Sentencing Project.
There has been a 21.6 percent drop in the number of Blacks incarcerated for a drug offense, a decline of 31,000 people during the period 1999-2005. While overall drug offenses rose only 1 percent during this period, federal drug inmates increased by 32 percent.
The study, The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs, also documents a corresponding rise in the number of Whites in state prison for a drug offense, an increase of 42.6% during this time frame, or more than 21,000 people. The number of Latinos incarcerated for state drug offenses was virtually unchanged.
The study says the individual police and sentencing systems across the U.S. need to be individually examined, but overall, the decline in Blacks incarcerated for a drug offense follows upon declining arrest and conviction rates for Blacks as well. The study suggests much of the disparity resulting from the drug war has been a function of police targeting of open-air drug markets, mainly since the inception of "the War on Drugs" and mandatory minimum sentencing structures that incarcerated small-time users for lengthy prison sentences. As crack use and sales have declined, or moved indoors in some cases, law enforcement activity may have been reduced correspondingly.
Because of the increase in White incarceration, the overall number of persons serving state prison time for a drug offense remained at a record 250,000 during the study period. The White increase may be related in part to more aggressive enforcement of methamphetamine laws, according to the study. While methamphetamine is only used at significant levels in a relative handful of states, data from states such as Iowa and Minnesota show a substantial influx of these cases during this time period.
The analysis by The Sentencing Project also documented a sharp contrast between state and federal prison populations. While the number of persons in state prisons for a drug offense rose by less than 1 percent during the study period, the increase in federal prisons was more than 32 percent. These latter changes are attributed to ongoing aggressive enforcement of drug laws, including application of harsh mandatory sentencing policies. Despite declines in the use of crack cocaine, federal prosecution and incarceration levels for crack offenses remain high and have a stark racially disparate impact.
In reviewing the study's findings, Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, noted that despite the new trend, African Americans are still imprisoned at more than six times the rate of Whites for all offenses. Moreover, high incarceration rates for low-level drug offenses remain a function of the largely punitive approach to drug abuse that has proven expensive and ineffective, he said.
The study is based on an analysis of government data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, FBI, and the Department of Health and Human Services.